I love Harlem. I’ve lived in the neighborhood for almost five years, and I have to say that now it feels like home. The guy who sells African incense on my street has become a pal, and I never tire of seeing President Obama’s face pop up on yet another mural. Since I’ve moved here, it seems like a new restaurant or shop has opened every month. By this point, everyone has heard about Red Rooster and Sylvia’s, which are both amazing restaurants but definitely not places you go to every day. So if you’re thinking about visiting Harlem and want to avoid the crowds, here are seven spots to experience real Harlem like a local.
Jacob restaurant is a go-to soul food spot for locals in Harlem. (Photo: JackTwo/Flickr)
Amazing Soul Food
373 Lenox Ave. between 128th and 129th
It’s no secret that Harlem is the place to go if you want soul food. And there is no shortage of places to get collard greens, macaroni and cheese, oxtails, and amazing cornbread. On Sundays, tourists flock to Sylvia’s to try her classic soul food meals. And don’t get me wrong, the food is great. However, the lines can get obnoxious. Right across the street on 128th and Lenox is a lovely little place called Jacob Restaurant. It’s a pay-by-the-pound spot where you walk through with a Styrofoam container and pile up the goodness. I usually end up with close to four pounds of food, but can you blame me? It’s the most glorious soul food buffet ever! Get it to go, or sit down on Sundays and listen to a jazz/gospel trio belt out some soulful tunes.
Enjoy the music and Middle Eastern cuisine at Silvana. (Photo: Silvana)
300 W. 116th St.
When you walk into Silvana, it looks like a trendy, globally inspired café. You can order a coffee, try a new pastry, and even purchase international and locally made goods. But the scene quickly changes as soon as you head downstairs. The underground lair has a stage that is always showcasing a band or a DJ. While listening to music, take a seat in the large dining area, where you can order your favorite Middle Eastern-inspired dishes, like falafel, lamb shawarma, and baba ghanoush. You can even share a hookah with friends. The owners of Silvana also own Shrine, another music venue in Harlem that is frequented by locals.
Bad Horse has some good pizza. (Photo: Bad Horse Pizza)
2222 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
No joke, I dream about this pizza. I tried Bad Horse for the first time three years ago, and now I refuse to order from anywhere else in Harlem. (OK, Patsy’s is really good, too). The menu is filled with classic pizzas made on a crispy thin crust with homemade sauce. You can make your own pie or choose from one of its amazing artisanal house specialties like Pig and Goat (prosciutto, goat cheese, roasted peppers) or Drunk Chicken (vodka sauce, garlic chicken, feta, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes). The restaurant delivers food to most of Harlem, so the only crowd you’ll encounter is the crowd of people fighting over the last piece.
Related: Is This New York City’s Best Pizza?
Enjoy your weekend with the liquid brunch from Hudson River Cafe. (Photo: Zagat Buzz/Flickr)
697 W. 133rd St.
Two words: Liquid brunch. For just $15 you can wash down your delicious Caribbean/Latin American fare with unlimited mimosas and Bellinis. Hudson River Café is the go-to spot for weekend brunch in Harlem, and the menu has a range of flavor-filled entrées like huevos rancheros and Wagyu sliders. The crowd is young, diverse, and cool, and the music is jazzy. Dine al fresco on their outdoor patio, and enjoy the cool breeze coming off of the Hudson River.
Harlem Tavern is the only beer garden in Harlem. (Photo: Harlem Tavern)
If you want to chill with your friends, watch a game, and nosh on some delicious bar food, then Harlem Tavern is the place to go. This restaurant and beer garden is always bustling — and with its extensive food and beer menu, it’s not hard to see why. From flatbreads to burgers and bourbon-braised beef short ribs, it has something for everyone. Come here with friends, or come here alone and you’re guaranteed to make some.
Runner-up: Just down the street, there is a German pub called Bier International. It has a beer garden-style feel and the best German beers uptown.
Get your caffeine fix at Lenox Coffee. (Photo: Lenox Coffee)
60 W. 129th St.
This specialty coffee house opened up in 2012, and has been a local favorite every since. In addition to Americanos (my favorite!), espressos, and macchiatos, the coffeehouse also dishes up crowd-pleasing pastries. The atmosphere is cool and relaxed, just like Harlem. Come in with your laptop and stay for a while; the Wi-Fi is free!
Related: Cheat Sheet: New York
(Photo: Harlem Underground)
Cool Retail Therapy
20 E. 125th St.
The standard “I Love NY” shirts are cute, but they are totally played out. If you want an authentic T-shirt that really represents the Big Apple, then journey uptown and stop by Harlem Underground. Want a custom shirt with Bob Marley on it? How about a vintage Run DMC style tee? You name it, they’ve got it. And if they don’t have what you’re looking for, they can make you a fresh shirt right on the spot.